AN escalating political row over the views of outspoken Coalition climate change sceptics is threatening ongoing negotiations between the government and opposition over Labor's emissions trading legislation.
Climate Change Minister Penny Wong yesterday accused Malcolm Turnbull of a failure of leadership after Coalition Senate leader Nick Minchin claimed a majority of opposition party members did not believe in man-made global warming, which he called the new "religion" of the Left after the demise of communism. Senator Wong said the Opposition Leader had to repudiate Senator Minchin if he were to live up to his declaration that he would not lead a party less committed to action on climate change than he was.
"The question is whether or not he can match the talk with action," Senator Wong said. "Unfortunately for him, many members of his party have directly attacked his authority."
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard even questioned the point of the negotiations, asking: "Is Malcolm Turnbull in a position to say that in negotiating in good faith, that he's got his party's support? Because if he isn't, then what are we negotiating about?"
Senior Coalition sources insisted Senator Minchin was wrong and a majority of Liberals would vote for ETS legislation incorporating critical Coalition amendments. But Senator Wong's comments reflect increasing scepticism in the government that Mr Turnbull can in fact "deliver" his partyroom's support for an ETS deal.
Meanwhile, Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott advised Senator Wong and Kevin Rudd to "shut up" and desist from "blaggarding" the Coalition if they were "fair dinkum" about getting an agreement on the ETS laws, which could secure their Senate passage.
Referring to the Prime Minister's speech last Friday in which he accused Coalition climate change sceptics of being part of a dangerous and prejudiced global push, Mr Abbott said the government attacks were threatening the talks.
"If the government is serious about getting our support it should be fair dinkum about these negotiations and just shut up, just stop blaggarding the opposition because if the government substantially accepts our amendments there is no reason why this legislation can't be passed," Mr Abbott said.
Mr Turnbull refused to directly comment on Senator Minchin's remarks, but said Mr Rudd's outburst was "not consistent with the good faith negotiations" the government claimed to be having with the opposition. But a senior conservative Liberal told The Australian Senator Minchin did not speak for the conservative wing of the party, was wrong in his description of the views of the party and that it was "complete idiocy for Senator Minchin to try to tell the public there was nothing going on with the climate".
And deputy leader Julie Bishop said the party had "moved beyond" a debate about whether climate change was real and that while Senator Minchin was entitled to his views, she did not agree with them.
Despite the rhetorical warfare, Senator Wong and opposition emissions trading spokesman Ian Macfarlane continued to hammer out a deal on the emissions trading legislation yesterday, with agreement likely on the exclusion of agricultural emissions and additional transitional assistance for major industries.
They have two more meetings scheduled this week as the talks reach "crunch point" before the legislation's introduction into the Senate in 10 days.
Speaking from Taiwan where he is on a parliamentary delegation, Senator Minchin said he had not told the ABC's Four Corners program anything different from what he had said many times before.
"I don't think I am jeopardising good-faith negotiations ... that's a silly and childish assertion," Senator Minchin said.
The Nationals have been adamant that they will not vote for an ETS even if the government accepts the Coalition amendments.